The Bostridge Project: Ancient and Modern

Helen Wallace enjoys an imaginative era-spanning concert at Wigmore Hall

No expense was spared, no practicality judged too complex for one of Wigmore Hall’s favourite sons, tenor Ian Bostridge. If he wanted a period instrument group in the first half (English Concert) and a modern orchestra in the second (Aurora) for this instalment of his 'Ancient and Modern' series, that’s what he got, no matter that a harpsichord had to be lugged on and off stage, for two different performers.

It may have led to an awkward staging, and overlong breaks, but musically it made elegant sense. Figures from classical antiquity told their tales, from Lucretia and Phaedra (realised by Handel and Britten), to Nero and Socrates’s companion Phaedo (in music by Scarlatti and Satie). There was a resonant symmetry to these death-soaked reflections, from the violence of Lucretia’s suicide to the calm acceptance of Socrates; the dangerous lusts of Phaedra to the insatiable sadism of Nero.

Mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager took up the part of Lucretia in Handel’s ‘O numi eterni’ with febrile intensity; in her opening recitative and aria we felt the full force of her superb, focused mezzo with its ringing dark underside. She pushed an exciting Furioso section to a speed almost beyond technique, but in the winding chromatic arabesques of the Scena tuning went awry. Nevertheless, her dramatic instinct is powerful, in marked contrast to Bostridge’s beautiful, but nonchalant reading of Scarlatti’s Cantata ‘Il Nerone’: where was the menacing ‘evil heart’, the imperial foot treading on the corpses?

Sandwiched between these, the English Concert’s leader Nadja Zwiener gave a graceful but distinctly sane account of Corelli’s ‘La follia’ (mad) variations, rather overwhelmed by the enthusiastic continuo playing of Laurence Cummings, cellist Jonathan Manson and William Carter on theorbo – three, it transpired, was a crowd.

Bostridge’s languid fluency and finely-shaded diction were more effective in Satie’s extraordinary lyric utterance La mort de Socrate, performed with the Aurora Orchestra. In a supple, serene account one could well imagine the composer ‘swimming in happiness’ as he turned flat prose into musical poetry. While Bostridge was precisely attuned to the work’s subtle austerity, Collon’s players were a little heavy-handed, and could have given Bostridge more space to breathe. The insistent tread of the ending may not build to a climax, but it needs atmosphere.

It was in Britten’s Phaedra that musicians and score seemed to click into place for a riveting performance. Kirchschlager bristled with animal spirits, using an impressive range of voices, from savage, low huskiness to a wild, shining top register. The Aurora players brought alert virtuosity to every note of the score, cellist Oliver Coates notably eloquent. The combined string sound had a startling purity and depth, the percussion was precisely heard and Collon’s ultra-sensitive ensemble with Kirchschlager turned a demanding work into a thrilling, edge-of-the-seat ride.

There are four more concerts in this series, each a model of original programming: each, in Bostridge’s words, reflecting ‘upon the ways in which we all colonise and remodel the past in our own image.’

The Bostridge Project: Ancient and Modern
11 May FĂȘtes Galantes with Sophie Daneman and Elizabeth Kenny (lute)
7 July Stravinsky, Gesualdo and Monteverdi with Angelika Kirchschlager
28 July Britten, Henze and Knussen with Ian Bostridge and Xufei Wang

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine